How to read scripture with Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Flores

Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville delivers the St. Thomas Day Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paul, Calif., Jan. 28, 2019. Photo courtesy of TAC.
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville delivers the St. Thomas Day Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paul, Calif., Jan. 28, 2019. Photo courtesy of TAC.

.- Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the aim of human living and all of history, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville said Monday in an address about St. Thomas Aquinas' interpretation of scripture.

“Thomas is a theological witness to a truth of Catholic Faith, namely that after the full revelation of Christ’s historical appearance, the Church has access to the aim of history. Hence, all the faithful now have the capacity by spiritual instinct and knowledge of the Gospel to see themselves figured in Christ,” Flores said Jan. 28 during his lecture for St. Thomas Day at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.

“This, together with the gift of the Spirit guiding our reception of the history of Christ, is what is new about the New Testament revelation. And this is why the Fathers of the Church, following Saint Paul, call the definitive revelation in Christ an 'unveiling'. What is unveiled? The aim of human living and all of history.”

The college celebrates the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas with Mass, a lecture, and leisure. In addition to his lecture, Flores also delivered a homily on charity.

Flores has been Bishop of Brownsville since 2009. He earned a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum in 2000, studying Thomas' theology.

The bishop's lecture addressed some aspects of Thomas' commentaries on scripture, noting that “lecturing on Scripture texts was Thomas’ main occupation,” and intending to encourage the reading of these commentaries so as better to understand the saint's “profoundly Christological” vision.

Thomas commented on the Gospels of Matthew and John; all of the Pauline epistles, including that to the Hebrews; and the Psalms, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Isaiah, and Job.

Flores highlighted “Thomas’ intense interest in the literal sense of the Scriptures,” which he said was related to the mendicant movements of his age and their interest “in the literal following of Christ.”

He began by reflecting on the “literalness” of Christ, saying that in the Incarnation “God expressed Himself literally; Jesus is the historically literal expression of the divine wisdom. Thus, it is essential to Catholic Christology to profess that the Second Person of the Trinity literally acts and expresses himself through his sanctified humanity … He translated Himself to us, in a language we could understand. That literal language is the humanity of Christ.”

The bishop then turned to Thomas' writing on a controversy over the literal sense of scripture, saying the saint's interest was “directly related to protecting the literalness of Christ’s teaching and example, and to accounting for the Old Testament as primarily prophetic and intentionally preparatory in nature.”

Following the Second Council of Constantinople, Thomas was opposed to the fifth century bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia, who denied that the Old Testament prophets ever intended to say anything literally about Christ, but rather that they wrote about other things, and their words were subsequently adapted to Christ.

Theodore's belief “undermines any understanding of the Old Testament as words from the Word, preparing for the Word’s expressed manifestation,” Flores noted.

In Theodore's understanding, New Testament authors appropriate the words of Old Testament authors “at will”, without regard to the original authors' intention. Thomas saw that this view “implicates [the Apostles and Evangelists] in a falsification of textual integrity.”

Thomas in fact saw that Theodore's belief was “a Christological error,” Flores said.

“The Lord Jesus knows what the intentions of the Old Testament authors are, and it is his knowledge, confided to the authors of the New Testament, that sustains the propriety of New Testament citation of the Old. It is the literal historicity of the WORD made flesh (expresse manifestavit se), the One who spoke through the prophets prior to his Incarnation, that gives the Apostles (and the Church) access to Old Testament intentions.”

After discussing Thomas' treatment of Theodore's error, Flores turned to Thomas' “Rule of Saint Jerome” on how some Old Testament words and deeds “have both an Old Testament historical referent and a literal sense extending to Christ.”

In cases where the words regarding an Old Testament event “exceed the condition of the histories, then the exceeded description itself extends to a literal application to later realities.” This principle both respects the immediate historical context of the Old Testament narrative, and allow the words to refer also to Christ.

For Thomas, the Christian can read the Old Testament as referring to both its immediate historical intentionality and literally to Christ because God can “accommodate history to signify his intentions. Related figurative senses are present in the thing described.”

“Thus, Theodore … lacks an understanding of the unified intentionality governing the whole of the Old Testament aimed toward Christ,” the bishop stated. “Doubtless, Thomas saw Theodore’s reading of Scripture as ultimately rooted in a Christological error. Theodore has no room for a real relation between the facta of the Old Testament and the facta of the New; he has no room for the intentional governance of history by the WORD.”

Finally, Flores turned to figuration, whereby Old Testament realities are figures of realities in the New Covenant, or even later on in Israel's history. This principle “is on full display” at the Easter Vigil, he noted.

In his commentary on the Psalms, Thomas looks for figuration, a practice “rooted in a pre-critical theological conviction that Israel’s history was governed by a special providence, a grace that orders its signification in a way that is anticipatory of the final revelation of God’s historical intent in Christ. This serves as the basis for a Christian reading of the psalms that respects the history of the psalmists. Figuration, in this tradition, (and here I must insist Thomas is very much in the spirit of the Fathers) is rooted in history, not in words; in events understood a certain way, not in poetic allusions.”

For example, in Psalm 21, “The history narrated in the Psalm is not about David, it is about Christ. This is its literal sense,” Flores said, summarizing Thomas' commentary.

“On this reading, David (the psalmist) has a vision of the Passion, and wrote of it. The psalmist's own sufferings are secondarily referenced in the psalm, but only to the extent they are figured within Christ’s sufferings. David saw himself in Christ; he did not see Christ in himself.”

This underlies spiritual progress: that “it is more perfect to see oneself figured in Christ than it is to see Christ figured in oneself. This is because Christ is the supreme locus of intelligibility, and I understand myself better if I see myself figured in him.”

“This is the distinction Thomas wishes to preserve: Israel’s history pre-figures New Testament events, yet the prophets had moments of imaginative vision with understanding that saw from afar the Christian history: they read the contemporary events they lived figured within the history of Christ: Prophets and Kings longed to see what you see, but did not see it.”

Thomas' explanation of Psalm 21 “as literally about Christ and figuratively about David (effectively reversing the ordinary way of explicating figuration)” grants David “a perspective of vision that is equivalent to ours,” Flores commented.

“We know the history of Christ as literal history, and can see ourselves in it … The eternally generated WORD in the flesh literally and historically expresses what every human life and what all history is really about.”

Flores concluded, reflecting on the structure of the Mass: “the sacramental re-presentation of the historical founding Word-event of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ comes after the reading of the Scriptures.”

“The Paschal Sacrifice is thus positioned to unveil the fundamental ratio through which the Scriptures just read are rightly understood. The literal body of Christ appears after the worded Scriptural explications, just as the Incarnation follows and clarifies the prior Scriptural pedagogy. And yet the Scriptures read prior to the Eucharistic Sacrifice guide our understanding of what is to be enacted, just as the Scriptural record prepared the way for faith in the Incarnation. It is a reciprocal pedagogy of grace.”

For Bishop Flores, figuration is essential to liturgy and theology.

“The Christological truth revealed in Scripture and enacted – made plain and made present – in the Eucharistic intervention is the basis for understanding rightly all subsequent figurative readings, be they moral, ecclesial, or eschatological. And the aim is that we see our lives figured within Christ thus plainly manifested. Of the Eucharist as of the Incarnation itself, we can truly say: Se nobis expresse manifestavit.”

Tags: Hermeneutics, Thomas Aquinas College, Bishop Daniel Flores, Thomas Aquinas

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